In contemporary political discourse, history and the classics have become obscure trivia, widely rejected not because of their content, but simply because they are old. And for that reason they are no longer much taught, even in the best universities.
A firm grasp of ancient history and literature was for centuries the mark of an educated individual. It provided not only a deep well of experiences from which to draw, but also formed a shared narrative of virtue. Today those shared narratives are formed by mass media, which invariably leave aside the virtue.
Reading The Founders and the Classics is to experience just how dramatically our modes of education have changed from those Americans who founded and formed the United States. These were men who began their Latin studies as children and became deeply familiar with the classics as they grew up. They knew and loved Cicero, Livy, Sallust, and a host of other authors from the ancient Greek and Roman world. These works not only told them stories of inspiration, but instructed them in a framework of moral virtue and individual responsibility that informed all of their actions.
Yet the classics also offered something more to the founders of this country. The eighteenth century was a time of extraordinary innovation. The founders were building on the genuinely new and in many cases untested ideas of Liberalism as they imagined and then brought into being the United States of America. But Liberalism itself drew breath from the concepts of classical republicanism.
The ancient world, therefore, provided a conceptual structure for the founders – a touchstone that both grounded and comforted. Their enterprise was new, but it was not without the guidance of the greatest minds that had ever lived. As Richard makes plain, for the founders the ancients were the ancestors of the American experiment.
Ancient history also provided models to emulate or to avoid. Founders like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams thought deeply, not only about the glories of Rome, but also about the flaws and missteps that led to its collapse. There was, of course, some disagreement about the latter, but most believed that the Roman republic failed due to a lack of checks by which the consuls (executive), assemblies (people), and Senate (aristocracy) could prevent any one group from seizing power.
They were determined to correct that problem. By providing sturdy checks, Adams believed that the American republic could be secure. Indeed, he claimed that had the Romans themselves adopted them, “it is impossible for any man to prove that the republic would not have remained in vigor and in glory at this hour.”
The founders were men shaped by the Classics. They believed that a rigorous education in the Classics prepared one for liberty and inoculated one from the pleasant flatteries that precede tyranny. Richard’s fascinating book not only sheds light on a pedagogical world view that has passed away, but by necessity prompts us to wonder at the costs of its passing.
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